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The Girl Who Smiled Beads
Cover of The Girl Who Smiled Beads
The Girl Who Smiled Beads
A Story of War and What Comes After
Borrow
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
"The plot provided by the universe was filled with starvation, war and rape. I would not—could not—live in that tale."


Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States; there, in Chicago, their lives diverged. Though their bond remained unbreakable, Claire, who had for so long protected and provided for Clemantine, was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, while Clemantine was taken in by a family who raised her as their own. She seemed to live the American dream: attending private school, taking up cheerleading, and, ultimately, graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of "victim" and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
"The plot provided by the universe was filled with starvation, war and rape. I would not—could not—live in that tale."


Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States; there, in Chicago, their lives diverged. Though their bond remained unbreakable, Claire, who had for so long protected and provided for Clemantine, was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, while Clemantine was taken in by a family who raised her as their own. She seemed to live the American dream: attending private school, taking up cheerleading, and, ultimately, graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of "victim" and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.
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  • From the book ***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

    Copyright © 2018 Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

    The night before we taped the Oprah show, in 2006, I met my sister Claire at her apartment in a public housing unit in Edgewater, where she lived with the three kids she'd had before age twenty-two, thanks to her ex-husband, an aid worker who'd pursued her at a refugee camp. A black limo arrived and drove us to downtown Chicago, to the Omni Hotel, where my sister used to work. I now can't think about that moment without also thinking about my own naïveté, but at the time all I felt was elated.

    I was eighteen, a junior at New Trier High School, living Monday through Friday with the Thomas family in Kenilworth, a fancy suburb. I belonged to the church youth group. I ran track. I'd played Fantine in the school production of Les Misérables. I was whoever anybody wanted me to be.

    Claire, meanwhile, remained steadfast, herself, a seemingly rougher bargain. Unlike me, she was not a child when we got resettled in the United States, so nobody sent her to school or took her in or filled her up with resources—piano lessons, speech therapists, cheerleading camp. Claire just kept hustling. For a while she made a living throwing parties, selling drinks and hiring DJs who mixed American hip-hop, the Congolese superstar Papa Wemba, and French rap. But then she learned it was illegal to sell liquor without a license and she started working full-time as a maid, cleaning two hundred hotel rooms a week.

    All I knew about the show we were taping was that it was a two-part series: the first segment showed Oprah and Elie Wiesel visiting Auschwitz, God help us; the second featured the fifty winners of Oprah's high school essay contest. Like the other winners, I had written about Wiesel's book Night, his gutting story of surviving the Holocaust, and why it was still relevant today. The book disarmed me. I found it thrilling, and it made me ashamed. Wiesel had words that I did not have to describe the experiences of my early life.

    I'd dictated my essay to Mrs. Thomas, as she sat in her tasteful Midwestern house—gracious lawn, mahogany floors—at a huge old computer that took up the whole desk. "Clemantine," she'd said, "you have to enter. I just know you'll win." Mrs. Thomas had three children of her own, plus me. I called her "my American mother" and she called me "my African daughter." She packed my lunch every day and drove me to school.

    In my essay I said that maybe if Rwandans had read Night, they wouldn't have decided to kill one another.

  • • •

    On the way to downtown Chicago, Claire and I had the inevitable conversation—is this happening? This is so weird—which was as close as my sister and I got to discussing what

    had happened to our lives. If we absolutely had to name our past in each other's presence, we'd call it "the war." But we tried not to do that, and that day we were both so consumed by all the remembering and willful forgetting that when we arrived at the Omni and the bellhop asked, "Do you have any bags?" we realized we'd left all our clothes at home.

    Claire took the L back to her apartment, where a friend was watching her children—Mariette, who was almost ten; Freddy, who was eight; and Michele, who was five. I stayed in the hotel room, lost.

    Harpo Studios gave us each a $150 stipend for dinner. It was more than Claire's monthly food stamp allowance. When Claire returned we ordered room service. We woke at 4:00 a.m. and spent hours getting dressed.

    ...

About the Author-
  • Clemantine Wamariya is a storyteller and human rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, displaced by conflict, Clemantine migrated throughout seven African countries as a child. At age twelve, she was granted refugee status in the United States and went on to receive a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She lives in San Francisco.
    Elizabeth Weil is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor to Outside magazine, and writes frequently for Vogue and other publications. She is the recipient of a New York Press Club Award for her feature reporting, a Lowell Thomas Award for her travel writing, and a GLAAD Award for her coverage of LGBT issues. In addition, her work has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award, a James Beard Award, and a Dart Award for coverage of trauma. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    November 1, 2017

    In 1994, six-year-old Wamariya fled genocidal violence in Rwanda with her older sister, Claire, and spent the next six years moving through seven African countries before landing in America. This raw-to-the-bone memoir grew out of an Association of Magazine Media Ellie Award finalist posted on the blog Medium, and Wamariya is known to Oprah watchers.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    March 1, 2018
    Record of a childhood in flight from war and terror."I hated that I had to eat," writes Wamariya. "I hated my stomach, I hated my needs." Growing children are always hungry, but the author, forced at the age of 6 to flee her native Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, was for years as a refugee never able to satisfy those elemental needs. Intercut with her chronicle of experiences in a series of refugee camps are moments from her new life in America, where she landed at the age of 12, adopted into a welcoming home in a bit of fortune that she did not trust: "I was callous and cynical....I thought I could fool people into thinking that I was not profoundly bruised." She had reason to worry, for on a six-year trail that passed through one African nation after another, she witnessed both generosity and depravity coupled with the constant worry that the older sister with whom she had fled would decide that she was too much of a burden and abandon her. She did not: Her sister's presence through one fraught situation after another is a constant. Wamariya's experiences adjusting to life in a country where, her sister declared, beer flowed from faucets and people owned six cars at a time are affecting, and there are some Cinderella moments in it, from being accepted to Yale to appearing on Oprah Winfrey's show. But more, there are moments of potent self-reckoning; being a victim of trauma means that "you, as a person, are empty and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own." The work of finding home and feeling safe--it's something that every foe of immigration ought to ponder; in that alone Wamariya's narrative is valuable.Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 19, 2018
    Wamariya, a human rights advocate, and Weil, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, tell the powerful story of Wamariya’s experience fleeing Rwanda after the genocide against the Tutsi ethnic group began in 1994. While visiting her grandmother at age six, Wamariya and her older sister, Claire, were told to sneak out of the house after they heard a knock on the front door. For the next six years Wamariya and Claire crossed through at least seven countries, separated from their parents and living in refugee camps; when Wamariya was 12, they were granted asylum in the U.S. and landed in a safe home in Chicago. Wamariya was an ambitious student and even became interested in cheerleading. After graduating high school, she attended Yale, where she came to terms with the horrors she endured and read the works of Audre Lorde and W.G. Sebald (who taught her that “we live in all times and places at once”). At last, the sisters were reunited with their parents in 2006. This book is not a conventional story about war and its aftermath; it’s a powerful coming-of-age story in which a girl explores her identity in the wake of a brutal war that destroyed her family and home. Wamariya is an exceptional narrator and her story is unforgettable.

  • Elisabeth Egan, Glamour "Wamariya's memoir proves how the human spirit can triumph. It truly floored me."
  • The Minneapolis Star Tribune "Gripping.... It is our human tragedy that there will always be war, and that there will always be displaced people. Memoirs that show exactly what that means, exactly what the toll is, are vital."
  • Real Simple "Heartbreaking and honest, this important memoir explores the lasting effects that trauma and destruction have on an individual and emphasizes the human ability to overcome it all and build a new future--even when that new life comes with horrors of its own."
  • Bustle "In this eloquent and engaging memoir, Clemantine Wamariya recalls a childhood spent as a refugee on the run from war, violence, and terror, and a womanhood shaped by those experiences. Affecting and utterly eye-opening, The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful reminder of just how strong and indomitable the human spirit can be."
  • Chanrithy Him, author of When Broken Glass Floats "Lyrical and hauntingly beautiful. The Girl Who Smiled Beads will inspire you."
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Clemantine Wamariya
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